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Lutherans in America

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Lutherans Come to America

Lutherans immigrated from Europe to North America as Spain, England and France were establishing colonies in what would become the United States of America. Among the first to come were Swedish Lutherans who settled in “New Sweden” along the Delaware River (in what is today the state of Delaware) during the 1630s. Another small group of Lutherans settled about the same time in "New Amsterdam" in what would become New York city. In the middle 1700s a good number of German Lutheran settled along side their Reformed “cousins” in Pennsylvania and many fought in the Revolutionary War. In fact, the first Speaker of the House of Representatives was a Lutheran. Most of the European Lutherans, however, came over right before or after the Civil War from 1840 to 1890. Hundreds of thousands came from Germany, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. They settled mainly along the east coast and the Midwest in the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South and North Dakota and Iowa although there were also significant settlements in Georgia, Texas and Missouri.

A New Situation

The Lutherans found themselves in a whole new situation. There was no state church. In America, churches were not supported and financed by taxes and the government. The Lutheran immigrants had to build, finance and provide leaders for their churches out of their own hard-earned resources. And they had to exist side-by-side next to other kinds of Christians, such as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Quakers, Baptists, and Anglicans. Nor, were the Lutherans themselves united. Initially, they were organized in hundreds of different groups due to their different languages and ethnic backgrounds. The Lutherans had to live in a new land, in a new age as an independent, self-sustain church. They had to learn to live without the support and direction of the princes. Actually, this worked to the church's benefit. People had to work together. Individual commitment was more important. And everyone had a personal investment and a voice in church affairs.

Acculturating to America

Quite naturally, these Europeans immigrants became more and more “Americanized.” As many years passed, fewer and fewer spoke their old native tongues of German, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian and more and more spoke English. Lutherans began to ask the questions like “What does it mean to be Lutheran in America?” and “Why do we need all these different ethnic Lutheran organizations now that we all speak English?” Some felt that Lutherans in America should become very much like the other protestant Christian churches around them. Others felt that they should maintain their distinctive character brought overseas. Like-minded people tended to band together. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Over the years, there has been a number of “coming together” or “mergers” of Lutherans. A major set of unions happened around World War I (the 400th anniversary of the Reformation), another set around the 1960s and still another in 1988. The result of the 1988 merger was the formation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which is now the largest Lutheran church body in the United States with approximately 4.9 million baptized members.

ELCA & Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

The one sizeable Lutheran church body which did not participate in the 1988 merger is the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LC-MS), which has approximately 2.3 million baptized members. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod stems from immigrants who came over from Germany in the middle 1800s during a period of intense struggle over the teachings of the church (church doctrine). One of their most prominent leaders brought a group of Saxon Germans up Mississippi River and had them settle in St. Louis. Another like-minded leader brought a group of Bavarian Germans to Ohio. The two groups heard of each other and organized. This led to the formation of “The German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio and Other States." This name was later shortened to "Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.” These German Lutherans were determined to maintain their distinctive character in America. They quickly formed a parochial school system to teach religion and nurture their ethnic culture in the German language. They gave a lot of attention to the precise wording of doctrinal formulations and resisted acculturation to the religious mainstream. With the coming of World War I & II it was no longer fashionable to continue with a heavy emphasis on the German culture and language. Moreover, during the war, Missouri Synod “boys” and “chaplains” rubbed shoulders with other Christians, and people of different religious backgrounds ministered to one another. And so, in the post-war period culminating in the 1960s, there were movements in the LC-MS to become more open to other Lutherans, other Christians and other religions. These movements were also hospitable to modern developments in biblical research, the inclusion of women as pastors and bi-lateral dialogues with other Christians, especially the Roman Catholics. This was met with a conservative backlash that resisted these movements. The majority group in Missouri felt there needed to be complete agreement in doctrine and practice before there could be union or extensive cooperation with other Christians. They also felt certain methods of modern biblical criticism were not appropriate for biblical study. The minority group felt it was sufficient to be united in the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments for there to be close partnership with other Christians and that the wide variety of modern scholarly tools only enriches our deep love and appreciation of the Scriptures. The end result was a small, fractional split in Missouri. A small “moderate” minority left in the late 70s & early 80s to participate in the formation of the ELCA in 1988. Because of its history, the Lutheran Church-Missouri tends to be more homogenous than the ELCA. It has never gone through a major merger. It is more like a nuclear family which has never gone through a divorce and a remarriage. Because of it history, the ELCA is the result of many mergers and so it tends to be more diverse. It is more like several sets of blended families living together under one roof. And so, there is definitely a broader range of opinion and expression on religious and social issues.
Some of the major differences between these two church bodies that people notice are the following:

  • The ELCA ordains women as pastors since they have gifts of the Holy Spirit which result in the building of the church.
    • The LC-MS does not ordain woman as pastors since it interprets the Bible as limiting the office of a pastor to men. The gifts of women are utilized in other ways.

  • The ELCA actively seeks to be in “full communion” with all other Christians where there is unity in the proclamation of the Gospel and the Sacraments. This has resulted in “full communion” with the Reformed, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Moravian and Episcopal churches, “interim communion” with the Methodists, and continued official dialogues with Roman Catholics.
    • The LC-MS maintains a clear line of separation from the ELCA and all non-Lutheran church bodies. For the LC-MS, there needs to be complete agreement in faith and practice before there can be “Altar and Pulpit Fellowship.” To date, this has been limited to small groupings of like-minded Lutherans.

  • All ELCA pastors welcome all baptized Christians who have been once admitted to the Sacrament of Holy Communion in their own church body to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communon.
    • Many LC-MS pastors practice what they call “closed” or “close” communion and limit the distribution of the bread and wine only to LC-MS members or members of those few church bodies with whom the LC-MS is in “Altar and Pulpit Fellowship.”


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